The Glass Eye: NFL Wildcard Weekend Preview
How different the NFL landscape looks now as compared to September, or even early October – three rookie QBs making the playoffs, two of whom face off this weekend; the rise of the Seahawks as a power, and the decline of the Steelers and Ravens (even though the latter backed into the playoffs) as legitimate contenders; an 11-game winning streak and probable MVP by the Broncos and the incomparable Peyton Manning; and most improbable of all, the Vikings and Colts rising the greatest rushing performance of all time and an inspiring coach’s story to playoff berths. Some of these Cinderella stories will go on, while others will see the clock strike midnight this week – let’s break down each matchup and make some predictions!
BENGALS at TEXANS
The Bengals come into the postseason on a major roll, having won seven of their final eight games – and the only loss was by one point to the Cowboys on a last-second field goal. The defense was the major part of their improvement, as they didn’t allow 400 or more yards after Week 7 and kept six of their final eight opponents under 200 yards passing, while recording 51 sacks. Their run defense was also much stronger down the stretch, and they forced at least one turnover in their last 15 games.
The offense was a lot more consistent from start to finish, especially through the air – QB Andy Dalton, is not a star, but he has established himself as a quality NFL QB who can win when he has good skill around him. WR AJ Green is elite, TE Jermaine Gresham is very good, and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis is steady if unspectacular. The biggest problem for Cincinnati is lack of production from other wideouts, which allows opposing defenses to double-cover Green.
Houston comes in on a real downward trajectory, having lost three of their last four after an 11-1 start – thus becoming the first 11-1 team in 34 years to not secure a playoff bye. Their offense was extremely prolific overall – 418 points ranked them eighth – but they were poor the last month, scoring only 36 total points in their three December losses. RB Arian Foster shouldered almost the entire rushing load, carrying the ball 351 times for 1454 yards. WR Andre Johnson had a great comeback season with 112 receptions, but like the Bengals, Houston lacks a second WR threat to keep defenses honest. QB Matt Schaub is similar to Dalton in that he’s above-average but not elite, and he also played poorly the last four games (1 TD, 3 INTs).
Houston’s defense was elite in 2011 but definitely took a step back in 2012 – JJ Watt was amazing, with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections as a 3-4 defensive end! He’s likely the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but the rest of the team was only slightly above average. This defense dominated poor teams, but got torched by good offenses all season. As the Bengals are somewhere in between, it’s hard to tell how Houston will fare defensively.
If you believe in momentum, the Bengals are the easy choice – and long-term, with only a couple of starters over age 30, I think the Bengals are setting up for a serious run in the AFC North. However, despite their late-season malaise I cannot discount the Texans’ superior skill on offense, and I get the feeling they will not fade away quite so easily. Home field helps them as well, so I’m picking HOUSTON BY SIX.
VIKINGS at PACKERS
I’m going to spend less time on this one – most fans are aware of the greatness of Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson, and if you missed these teams’ epic showdown in Week 17 as Mike Lange would say ‘shame on you for six weeks’ – it showed the strengths and weaknesses of both teams. Minnesota will almost certainly give the ball to Peterson 30+ times and hope he can continue to bust up the Pack ‘D’ (he ran for over 400 yards in two games against GB this season), but their only chance to win the game really comes down to QB Christian Ponder. There’s no way Green Bay scores less than 20 points, and likely will get at least 28, so Ponder will have to make a few big plays in the passing game. The Vikings only passed for 300 yards once this season, and were held under 100 yards passing three times – which illustrates the relative inconsistency of Ponder and his wideouts, especially with Percy Harvin out.
Green Bay is to the point where the running game is an afterthought – they didn’t even average four yards per carry, and five RBs got at least 30 carries this season. Meanwhile their passing game is as lethal as ever – Rodgers completed almost 68% of his passes, with 39 TDs and only 8 INTs. The Pack will score points – they were held under 20 points only twice all season, and the Vikings don’t have the defense to hold them down. Green Bay’s losses have come when they failed to contain the opponent’s running game, and when they didn’t force turnovers (they failed to force a turnover in five games, and lost four of those). Minnesota has gashed them on the ground twice, so I look for Green Bay to completely and totally sell out to stop Peterson and take their chances with Ponder’s aerial attack.
Green Bay went 7-1 at home; they have the playoff experience and one of the best QBs in the league. Minnesota is TOTALLY playing with house money here, as I and many others had them pegged as a losing team in 2012 and they are at least a season ahead of schedule. I actually think this game won’t be close, I think Green Bay gets up by two scores early, takes Peterson out of the game, and rolls. PACK BY 10.
COLTS at RAVENS
Look, this game kind of defies traditional analysis – the Colts were outscored this season by 30 points, they had a -14 takeaway differential, yet somehow managed to go 11-5. They won only two games by more than seven points, and one of those was against the hapless Jags. Andrew Luck had a nice season for a rookie, but he only completed 54% of his passes and he threw 18 picks. They also had virtually no running game…while the defense was frankly bad, second-worst in the league against the run and almost as bad against the pass (they only recorded 32 sacks, only Atlanta recorded less among playoff teams). Teams with these kinds of stats MIGHT eke out an 8-8 season, but more typically are 6-10 or 7-9. AND YET….they went 11-5.
Baltimore, is almost the exact opposite – they outscored their opponents by 54 points, they were a top-10 team in scoring offense and 12th in scoring defense. They have a stout (if underutilized) running game led by Ray Rice, the defense is still something of a takeaway machine (+8), and while they didn’t dominate against the run as they have in years past, they were still better than average. AND YET….they lost four of their last five games to finish 10-6, and aside from their Week 1 beat down of the Bengals they never beat a good team by more than three points.
Again, if you believe in momentum, how could you NOT pick the Colts? They’re on fire! They almost came all the way back to win the division! Andrew Luck might be Rookie of the Year, ChuckStrong, etc…while the Ravens have been a mess for over a month (really, I go back to the 13-10 win in Pittsburgh, when they only managed 200 yards of offense, and an obviously injured Byron Leftwich ALMOST managed to beat them if it weren’t for three turnovers). Seems like an easy call, right?
However…while I will definitely root for the Colts with all my heart this weekend, I don’t think they will win. Rookie QB’s on the road are not good bets, Baltimore’s defense is SOOOOO much better than Indy’s that there’s almost no comparison (and that’s even with the Ravens’ D obviously in decline), and while I’m no believer in Joe Flacco, I believe he will have plenty of time to find receivers Sunday – and when Flacco gets time, he can look as good as anyone. If the Ravens remember that they have Ray Rice, and give him 25 carries, I see almost no way they lose this game.
I hope I’m wrong – I’ve said many times, ANYTHING is possible in the playoffs, and Indy has a very, VERY bright future either way – but great stories don’t win games, talent wins games, and at this point Baltimore still has more talent. I think this weekend is Baltimore’s last hurrah, and I think they win this game rather easily. RAVENS BY 17.
SEAHAWKS at REDSKINS
By FAR the most intriguing matchup of this round – both teams come in RED hot. Washington has won seven straight, mostly against very tough competition, the Seahawks have somehow morphed into a juggernaut, winning their last five games by a combined score of 193-60. Their destruction of the 49ers in Week 16 was the most impressive win by any team all season in my estimation.
The ‘Hawks outscored their opponents by 167 points, third-best in the NFL, and allowed only 245 points which actually led the league! Also, it’s not like Seattle had a ‘cake’ schedule – they faced the Packers, Patriots, Vikings, Cowboys, Lions, and Bears – as well as the 49ers twice. They are the NFL’s top defense totally on merit, no team managed to score 30 points on them all season and only five even reached 20 points. The pass defense was their strength, only two teams passed for over 300 yards on them and they allowed only 15 passing TDs all season. Their potential Achilles’ heel is their defensive line, however – they only recorded 36 sacks, and they allowed 4.5 yards per rush.
Offensively, with all respect to Ben Roethlisberger in ’04, and the other rookies this season, Russell Wilson just had the best PASSING season of any rookie QB. Wilson threw for almost 3200 yards, completing 64% of his throws. He set the new rookie record for TD passes with 26, while throwing only 10 INTs. I read all about Wilson’s savvy and moxie and leadership in the preseason, and chalked it up to offseason chatter – but he’s CLEARLY the real deal on and off the field, and looks to be a top-10 QB for the foreseeable future. Of course, the brilliant running game in Seattle sure helped – the team rushed for over 2500 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, which kept defenses quite honest and allowed effective play-action. For all of Wilson’s rookie brilliance, however, Seattle is first and foremost a running team – they ran for over 100 yards in all but three games, and rushed for over 150 in seven of their last eight games. They rushed the ball 536 times against only 406 pass attempts – that’s true old-school football! Marshawn Lynch got over 1500 rushing yards, averaging five yards per carry. This is not a flashy offense, but is a very powerful, consistent offense that relies on efficiency and lack of turnovers to be successful.
Washington is almost exactly like Seattle on offense – while I think Wilson was the better PASSER, Griffin had the better SEASON when you figure in his 818 rushing yards. RG3 completed 65% of his passes for 3200 yards, 20 TDs and only 5 INTs – numbers that Elway or Montana would be proud of, much less a rookie QB who came into DC with TONS of pressure on him to excel. Washington actually ran the ball better than Seattle – they ran for 2700 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Griffin’s 6.8 average helped, but fellow rookie Alfred Morris rushed for 1600 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, making them the league’s best 1-2 running punch. Like the Seahawks, the ‘Skins ran 519 times – far more often than they passed (442 times).
While Washington’s offense was among the best in the league, their defense was well below average – they allowed almost 25 points per game, which ranked 22nd. They were actually decent against the run, allowing only 1532 yards and 4.2 yards per carry, but they allowed almost 4800 passing yards and 31 passing TDs. Washington’s defense suffered several injuries early in the season, and while they did improve during the second half this clearly is not the strength of their team.
This is SUCH an interesting matchup – Seattle’s team dominance vs. the individual brilliance of RG3 and Morris. Both teams are going to try to establish the run early, and I think both will have some success on the ground…but ironically, I really think this game will come down to a few big plays in the passing game, and I just don’t trust Washington’s defense. If RG3 were fully healthy, I just might pick the Redskins – and I think this could become THE power matchup in the NFC for the next decade, similar to the Colts-Pats feud in the AFC last decade – but if so, I like the SEAHAWKS to win the first round BY SEVEN in what should be a great game.
Back next week with Round Two analysis!
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.